It’s sometimes said the race to innovate legal services has turned disruption into the ‘new normal’, but is it yet normalised enough to be part of law firm culture? Has the innovation in client experience transformed how law firms operate more generally, and can they turn their investment into sustainable competitive advantage?
Early explorers undoubtedly enjoyed a first-mover advantage, as they offered genuine differentiation – something ‘new’. But is that advantage sustainable, even for them? Is disruption in itself enough to stand out, or could there also be benefit in holding back a little to learn lessons from the pioneers?
Service innovation isn’t all about new technology – and where it is, it should really be an enabler, rather than the end goal, of an improvement.
Either way, most larger firms now have innovation teams embedded in or tapping up the BD, KM or IT function. In many cases, they recruit new professionals with legal tech, project management or strategy backgrounds, to work alongside partner-led committees. However, product development and other process innovation often still takes place away from the day-to-day of the lawyering – and although individual partners might be very aware of the key features of a product or service, tech solutions can be very hard to embed across the business. Meanwhile, a firm needs to incubate the right mindset for a genuine culture of innovation to flourish – which can take some time, and plenty of hard work, in any organisation.
Of course, firms also need to talk to clients about what they want from any disruption, but in some cases clients themselves may not know everything that might be possible to improve the service they’re getting. The only way to meet that is fully proactive collaboration across the relationship, gathering information and asking the right questions.
Service innovation isn’t all about using new technology – and where it is, it should really be an enabler, rather than the end goal, of an improvement. Nor is innovation always terribly disruptive. Even something that seems to be at the ‘low tech’ end of the spectrum – making some operational basics more efficient – can be transformative; perhaps an initiative such as a more scientific work-allocation process or more consistency in document review, for example. And a new way of collaborating – in internal teams or with clients – is unlikely to be a wasted endeavour. I’d just highlight that in my experience, if a new initiative first ‘bubbles up’ within one area, rather than being centrally rolled out from on high, it can be a change management win and gain greater long-term traction as a result.
However innovation takes place at your firm, the way it’s happening there and elsewhere shouldn’t be ignored. Clients are disrupting the market for themselves, as well as buying into that of challenger ‘NewLaw’ brands. Innovation is a competitive risk factor, and firms that unquestioningly fall back on the practice of business-as-usual should ask themselves if it’s still the best option.